Susanna Mälkki makes resounding Ravinia debut

Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 11:25 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Susanna Malkki led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky Wednesday night at the Ravinia Festival.  Photo: Patrick Gipson
Susanna Mälkki led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky Wednesday night at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Patrick Gipson

Midori may have been the marquee name for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program Wednesday night at Ravinia, but for many it was the chance to renew acquaintance with Susanna Mälkki that was the greater draw. The Finnish conductor made a spectacular debut with the CSO in 2011 and an equally impressive return to Orchestra Hall last season.

Ravinia’s CSO programming this summer is even more lowest common denominator than usual and Wednesday’s lineup of two Russian warhorses didn’t offer much interpretive space for an artist of Mälkki’s adventurous sensibility. Even so, she still managed to infuse music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with notable freshness and searing dramatic impact.

Mälkki offered a generous 50-minute selection from Prokofiev’s ballet, proving her own woman with some rarely heard items among the familiar excerpts (though the printed program didn’t quite cohere with the selections performed).

Mälkki doesn’t wield a baton, relying on her hands and arms to direct the music, cue and communicate with the orchestra. I’m not a fan of Ravinia’s video Jumbotrons but in this case it was fascinating to see how expressively Mälkki sculpted and coaxed the music with her flowing, graceful movements.

As in previous Mälkki appearances, what proved most striking was the organic quality of the music-making, the conductor sustaining dramatic momentum and a firmly concentrated unity. Rarely does one hear this music flow so seamlessly and logically from one section to the next, emerging as cohesively as a Strauss tone poem rather than the usual grab-bag of ballet excerpts.

The conductor brought out the score’s strangeness and edgy, subversive element, as in the strident galumphing brass of the rarely heard “Interlude.” Overall, her Prokofiev had a finely judged blend of dramatic urgency and lyrical warmth. The climaxes of “Montagues and Capulets” and, especially, the Cortege after the death of Tybalt had a violent sonic punch, with massive resounding sonorities built from the basses up.

Yet she also brought a nimble fleetness and delicate transparency to “Juliet as a Young Girl” and fervent romantic tragedy to the concluding “Death of Juliet.” Mälkki is a true artist capable of illuminating even the most familiar repertory. Taking that alongside her strong advocacy of contemporary music, and I can’t think of a better candidate for principal guest conductor of the CSO’s regular downtown season.

Few violinists have made as graceful a transition from child prodigy to veteran stage performer than Midori. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has always been a grateful vehicle for the Japanese-born violinist and so it proved again Wednesday night.


Without doing anything particularly idiosyncratic, Midori delivered a wholly satisfying performance, tackling this ineradicable warhorse with characteristic verve, fire, and tonal gleam. She brought a lithe, lyric elegance to the music while mining the melancholy introspection of the Canzonetta with subtly shaded expression and providing bristling bravura in the finale’s solo fireworks.

The CSO provided customarily polished support under Mälkki’s alert accompaniment. As in the Prokofiev, she found a way to consistently freshen up this familiar music, eliciting forceful tuttis, giving wind solos space to breathe, and taking a more measured tempo for orchestral episodes usually rushed through in the first movement.

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